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Toward Ruin or Recovery?

The modern feminist response to rape is failing women, and it is failing victims of rape most of all.

· 34 min read
The author, pictured on a bridge in Amsterdam, in 1993, a few weeks before she was attacked.
The author pictured in Amsterdam in January 1993, a few weeks before she was attacked.

I. The Tormented

Thirty-one years ago, I was raped while I was living in Italy. I was 23 years old. I have never written about this experience publicly before, but I decided to do so after I read a long essay in the politics and culture journal Liberties titled, “After a Rape: A Guide for the Tormented.” That essay is written by the journal’s managing editor Celeste Marcus, and it details her recovery process following an alleged sexual assault two and a half years ago. She expresses her hope that others might learn from her story and draw some meager comfort from the advice she has to offer:

What follows is a guide for the tormented. Its objective is to offer a taxonomy of rape’s afterlife, so that you, the victim, can make sense of your own grief. The grief will initially strike you as overwhelming, as all you will ever know. It will feel unbearable and sometimes it will be unbearable. In the early days you will worry that the grief will never end, that the inside of your mind will always be a hostile place, and that from now on you will conceive of yourself primarily as a rape victim and a rape survivor. It will take a long time until that is no longer the most salient thing about you. That crushing identity will slowly lighten and lift. Healing will take a long time, but it can be managed responsibly by anticipating the dangers and preparing for them. It cannot be sped up, though it can be slowed down.

If the last two or three lines of that passage sound tentatively hopeful, the essay itself is not. It is a torturous account of a victim trapped in the netherworld of unresolved rape trauma, written in the language of 1990s anti-rape activism recently accelerated by the #MeToo movement: “You have heard that one in four women will be victims of rape by the time they reach their mid-twenties,” Marcus tells us, “but now the implications of ‘one in four’ will grab you by the throat. When you walk down the street you will start counting—the women, of course, but also the men. The inverse of that statistic will dawn on you: if one in four women are victims, how many of the men you walk past are perpetrators?”

Marcus did not name her alleged attacker in her Liberties essay, but she revealed his identity on social media a month later. On February 4, she posted a screenshot on Twitter of an email she had sent to the Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg and executive editor Adrienne LaFrance shortly after her essay appeared, in which she wrote: “It has been two and a half years since the rape, and I believe it is past time for you to know that the rapist was Yascha Mounk. You have a rapist on the staff of your illustrious publication.” In the accompanying tweet, she declared: “I will not be raped with impunity.”

Is her accusation plausible? It is impossible to tell. Marcus provides us with nowhere near enough information to render an informed judgment, divulging no context and almost no detail about the alleged assault itself—we learn only that she awoke as it was happening. “I was in and out of sleep when he penetrated me and was jolted wide awake when he started moving fast inside me” she writes. Further down, she adds: “I woke up when he started moving quickly as if about to climax, and that was when I said ‘no, no, no’ for the final time.” We do not learn how she and this man ended up in the same bed, how or when her clothing was removed, or what words were exchanged before or after the rape. “I had said no to him so many times before,” she writes, but we do not know when she said this or under what circumstances.

Mounk has yet to publish his own version of events, and perhaps he never will. Approached for comment by the Washington Post, he said only, “I am aware of the horrendous allegation against me. It is categorically untrue.” Despite this vehement denial and the absence of a police report or any other evidence, the Atlantic cut its ties with Mounk the day his name was made public. In the era of #MeToo and social media, due process has been shunted aside in favor of crowdsourced adjudication and retribution. Like so many before him, Mounk has been publicly shamed and sanctioned, even though the grave allegation against him remains unsupported and untested in a court of law.

There can be no doubt about the depth of Marcus’s bitterness, her near-mythic rage, or her thirst for vengeance. She imagines visiting crippling emotional sanctions on her accused: “I wished I believed in hell so that I could believe he would burn forever” and “I wanted the word [rapist] to rise like bile in his throat every time he read his own byline. His condign punishment would have been the burning tang of his own evil present as a taste on his tongue.” But the essay’s ferocity swallows up any clarity of analysis. Her guide is both a cri de coeur and the culmination of half-a-century of ever-worsening advice about rape. 

Feminists once called for street lights on dark sidewalks, pepper spray on key chains and rape kits in hospitals, self-defense classes, better laws, fairer trials, and buddy systems for getting home safely from frat parties. But the prevailing discourse now sweeps that agenda aside in favor of a counsel of despair exemplified by Marcus’s memoir: rapists are everywhere, medical examinations are pointless, and there is no help to be found from either the police or the courts. In the aftermath of a rape, all that remains are an endless journey of self-care and the vengeful wrath of the ruined woman.

We have been here before. I read Marcus’s essay wearily, because I believe that she is a victim of the same bad dogma she now encourages others to embrace. The modern feminist response to rape is failing women, and it is failing the victims of rape most of all.

II. Rape Redefined

During feminism’s second wave, the definition of rape expanded. The idea that rape could only be committed by a stranger was too narrow. Marital rape would no longer be considered an oxymoron. Nor would it be acceptable to use a victim’s sexual history—particularly evidence of prior promiscuity or sex work—to diminish the credibility of a rape accusation. We acknowledged that even popular and well-known men could commit rape. These arguments were largely and rightly successful in changing cultural attitudes, and better legal protections against sexual violence and rights of redress for victims were duly enshrined into law.

But the feminist movement forged on, ultimately succeeding in broadening the definition of rape in less helpful ways, to the point that its most basic meaning, as intuitively understood by almost all adults, was reduced to a footnote. Rape, it was now argued, didn’t have to be accompanied by violence or the threat of force. It could also involve emotional pressure, manipulation, deception, or the exploitation of vulnerability caused by intoxication or power disparities. It could be identified simply by an absence of verbal consent. Uncertainties proliferated as clarity about what constituted one of society’s most reviled and taboo crimes gave way to confusion. As the definition of rape expanded, so did the number of victims and the ensuing difficulty in obtaining prosecutions as the distinction between violent assault and more ambiguous sexual encounters dissolved.

By the early 1990s, this broader definition of rape had uncovered an apparent epidemic of sexual violence on American college campuses. We began to hear the alarming statistic that Marcus mentions in her essay—that one-in-four women will be the victim of rape or attempted rape between the ages of 18 and 24. This was a terrifying prospect and an indictment of American society, which was now said to be in the grip of what we came to call “rape culture.” Activists circulated pamphlets, wrote editorials, held conferences and demonstrations, and organized teach-ins and other consciousness-raising events to address the apparent crisis. In the quest for justice, police reports, courtrooms, and emergency-room visits were deemed ineffective or even complicit with Western patriarchy, so they were replaced by whisper networks and unsubstantiated (and often anonymous) accusations. 

The atmosphere on campuses became feverish. During my final year of college, 1991, allegations of rape rapidly multiplied. An acquaintance accused a friend of mine of raping her while they were both black-out drunk. A list of alleged rapists appeared on one of the bathroom stall walls, with some names crossed out and then rewritten in another hand. Students occupied the administration building during Parents Weekend to protest the school’s supposedly phlegmatic response to accusations of sexual assault. In the spring semester of my senior year, at least one young male student was rumored to have been expelled without any kind of due process following an accusation of rape. 

But underneath the growing sense of siege, a question nagged: had feminists really exposed a hidden epidemic of sexual violence, or was the problem actually one of radically altered perception? In 1993, Katie Roiphe wrote a hotly debated essay for the New York Times magazine in which she expressed her growing unease with the direction of campus anti-rape activism. She began by questioning the “one-in-four” statistic: 

It didn't seem right. If sexual assault was really so pervasive, it seemed strange that the intricate gossip networks hadn’t picked up more than one or two shadowy instances of rape. If I was really standing in the middle of an “epidemic,” a “crisis”—if 25 percent of my women friends were really being raped—wouldn’t I know it?

She pointed out that confusion about what now constituted an act of rape was widespread. “In a 1985 survey undertaken by Ms. magazine and financed by the National Institute of Mental Health,” Roiphe reported, “73 percent of the women categorized as rape victims did not initially define their experience as rape; it was Mary Koss, the psychologist conducting the study, who did.” What if a woman were unaware that she’d been raped until the idea of rape culture had been explained to her?

We all agree that rape is a terrible thing, but we no longer agree on what rape is. Today’s definition has stretched beyond bruises and knives, threats of death or violence to include emotional pressure and the influence of alcohol. The lines between rape and sex begin to blur. The one-in-four statistic on those purple posters is measuring something elusive. It is measuring her word against his in a realm where words barely exist. There is a gray area in which one person's rape may be another’s bad night. Definitions become entangled in passionate ideological battles. There hasn’t been a remarkable change in the number of women being raped; just a change in how receptive the political climate is to those numbers.

Roiphe also worried that the revolution in sexual politics was robbing young women of their agency and of responsibility for their own conduct and safety, a necessary part of adulthood in a free society. The pursuit of female liberation was being replaced by illiberal and retrogressive notions of female fragility, virtue, and victimization. “In discussing rape,” she observed, “campus feminists often slip into an outdated sexist vocabulary”:

In one student’s account of date rape in the Rag, a feminist magazine at Harvard, she talks about the anguish of being “defiled.” Another writes, “I long to be innocent again.” With such anachronistic constructions of the female body, with all their assumptions about female purity, these young women frame their experience of rape in archaic, sexist terms. Of course, sophisticated modern-day feminists don't use words like honor or virtue anymore. They know better than to say date-rape victims have been “defiled.” Instead, they call it “post-traumatic stress syndrome.” They tell the victim she should not feel “shame,” she should feel “traumatized.” Within their overtly political psychology, forced penetration takes on a level of metaphysical significance: date rape resonates through a woman's entire life.

Roiphe’s article anticipated Marcus’s by nearly 31 years. I remember it well because it was published five months after I was raped. One night, smoking cigarettes in the parking lot of a bar between music sets, my brother summoned the liquid courage to discuss Roiphe’s article. “But that’s not what happened to you,” he offered definitively. “It’s not the same thing.”

He was right—what happened to me was not the same thing at all. Mine was the old-fashioned kind of rape—two young men accosted me as I walked home alone in Florence late one night and dragged me into a park that ran along the Arno River. Having come of age in an era replete with education about rape culture and sexual violence, I should have been prepared for this moment. A self-described feminist since my teenage years, I had read and re-read rape-centered feminist classics like Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, and I had practically committed to memory Our Bodies, Ourselves, an earthy ’70s relic of medical and social-justice advice published by the Boston Women’s Health Collective. I’d attended a small liberal arts college in upstate New York where we had begun the work of unpacking the patriarchy. I was an avid student of feminist rape discourse and was often the one to tell many of my friends about the one-in-four figure.

But on that shocking night in Florence, and during the weeks and months that followed, I found that very little of what I’d learned was useful.

III. The Assault

In 1992, I boarded a plane with a one-way ticket to Italy. I’d spent a junior year there so rich in delight and intrigue that, when I graduated from college, I worked three jobs for six months so I could return to Florence and join my best friend, who’d resettled there several months earlier. I had a vague plan to spend a year or so in Italy and then drift northwards with a fantasy of becoming fluent in multiple languages. I found a job as a babysitter in the fancy hills of Fiesole and waited tables in a stylish little bar near the center of the city. My friend and I rented an adorable little apartment in a quiet neighborhood just outside Florence.

The author (right) and roommate in their Florence apartment, 1993.

Within a few months, I had a boyfriend, Enzo from Calabria, who wore Guatemalan shirts, tied his hair in a ponytail, and had a small gold hoop in each ear. He had dropped out of university and was bartending at an American-style drinking hall called Lo Scorpione. He was an extroverted, kind, and lovely human being, if a little scruffy around the edges—but so was I at 23. For New Year’s Eve, we drove up to Amsterdam, where on one memorable afternoon we smoked a joint and then wandered giddily through the Van Gogh museum, marveling at the art, all of which was new to Enzo. Seeing these familiar paintings freshly through the stoned eyes of a willing novice remains one of my favorite experiences in a gallery. 

On the evening of January 25, 1993, a few weeks after we returned to Florence, I went to see a movie by myself. My friends all had the flu, but the English-language movie theater was playing Bram Stoker’s Dracula for one night only and I didn’t want to miss it. After the film, I stopped by Lo Scorpione to see when Enzo’s shift would be over. It was after midnight and the bar was so busy he could barely stop to chat, so I told him I’d take the bus home. We planned to meet the following day. On the way out, I ran into some friends who offered to drive me home, but they weren’t ready to leave and I didn’t want to wait. By the time I reached the bus stop, it was about 1:00 a.m. After waiting for about 15 minutes, I looked at the timetable and discovered I had missed the last bus.

Florence was a reasonably safe city with a vibrant nightlife, and I thought of myself as an intrepid traveler. I’d slept in train stations across Europe, traveled around Tunisia with three girlfriends, taken wild chances when hitchhiking, and enjoyed the occasional boozy one-night stand. At 23, I had youthfully brash intentions of living my life in the shark tank, taking risks, and expanding boundaries. But the decision to walk home that night didn’t feel especially bold, it was simply practical. With no other way to get back besides a cab, I began the familiar two-mile trek back to my apartment. 

I had left the center of the city behind and was walking along Lungarno del Tempio, which ran along the Arno River, when I saw a car pull over about 50 yards ahead of me. A young man—possibly North African—got out, and after glancing briefly in my direction, leaned against a tree on the edge of the park and urinated against the trunk. Someone else was sitting in the driver’s seat, but I thought it was a woman—possibly a wife or girlfriend. As I got closer, though, I became uneasy and felt a strong urge to cross the street. Violence prevention expert Gavin de Becker, author of The Gift of Fear, says we are better than we realize at sensing danger, and that we should listen to those instincts. But I ignored them, worried that pointedly avoiding this man might look racist or just rude. 

As I approached the car, the man seized my arm. I pulled back and his grip tightened. His male companion had by then gotten out of the car and seized me from the other side. Everything went into slow motion as a hand covered my mouth and I was forcibly hustled off the sidewalk and into the park’s woods. Surreal confusion gave way to panic and I began frantically resisting, digging my heels into the ground and throwing my weight backwards. I think that was when the first blow came and it brought me up short: this is really happening. I began tearing through my mind in search of options, reaching for advice I’d read and stored away for a moment like this and almost immediately discarding it.

I had read, for example, that it is better to yell “Fire!” than “Rape!” because no one would run towards the scene of a crime. In the midst of an actual assault, this suddenly seemed absurd. I wanted to yell “Help!” but I couldn’t remember if the Italian word took the form of a noun or a verb, so I began yelling “NO!” over and over again as loudly as I could. Although feminist advice has not prioritized fighting back as a response to assault for decades, I fought like a banshee. It was chaotic. The ground kept rearing up at me and swooping back down. I grabbed and flailed and scratched at their faces. I tried to kick or knee them, but I couldn’t lift one of my feet without losing my balance. 

Weeks after the assault, I would read Stopping Rape: Successful Survival Strategies, a 1985 report by researchers Pauline Bart and Patricia O’Brien in which they share their findings on which strategies, if any, have helped women escape an attempted rape. The strategies they discuss (in order of effectiveness) are flee or try to flee; scream/yell; physical force; cognitive verbal (reasoning, using wiles, etc); affective verbal (pleading, etc.); environmental intervention; no strategy. Based on their own investigations, as well as numerous studies that came before theirs, they concluded: 

One of the most important findings was that when a woman used physical force as a defense technique together with another technique, her chances of avoiding [rape] increased (no woman in our study used physical force alone). In fact, the more additional strategies she used, the greater her chances. Of the 13 women who used physical force plus an additional strategy, 6 avoided rape and 7 were raped. Nine women who used physical force and two additional strategies avoided rape. None of the 13 women who used three or four strategies in addition to physical force was raped. 

My mother later said she was surprised that I fought as much as I did. I am highly agreeable and bookish by nature. I played soccer and field hockey all through my school years, but I was a slow-moving, stolid player—never fast or explosive or even particularly competitive. Still, perhaps those years of playing contact sports equipped me with the instincts to resist (playing football as a child correlates with fighting back per Bart and O’Brien) as well as countless physical skirmishes with my older brother when we were little.

When I started yelling, one of the men began pounding his fist into my face. With each blow my vision exploded into blackness and I’d see stars. The blackness would clear, I’d take a breath, and then continue yelling. “Stai zitta!” the man would hiss and punch me again. At one point, he covered my mouth and nose with his hand so tightly that I couldn’t breathe and thought I might suffocate. Terrified by the lack of oxygen, I nodded that I would be quiet but when he let go I drew a breath and started shouting again. More than once, he pressed something against my throat and told me he would cut me if I didn’t stop. A knife was never found so it might have been something else, but at the time I believed him.

I was no match for two men. They finally forced me to the ground, where I writhed and thrashed all over again as they wrenched my jeans to my ankles. I refused to open my legs, so they forced me onto my stomach and said they would rape me from behind if I didn’t comply. At that point I gave in. I didn’t want to be sodomized. They rolled me onto my back and one man leaned heavily on my chest to hold me still, kissing my face and forcing his tongue into my mouth while the other unbuckled his pants, pushed my knees apart, and entered me. 

I stared up at the sky. This was unreal and shockingly degrading. It was not supposed to be happening. I desperately wanted to remove myself from all sensation, to contract and withdraw from the confines of my skin. But I didn’t disassociate, which I’d been taught was a common response, and I wondered briefly about this. I’m still all here, I thought.

The man who went first, the one who had been hitting me, finished. He didn’t bother holding me down while his friend took his turn, but stood guard, impatiently peering at the distant road. While the second man fumbled with his belt, I remembered reading that I should try to humanize myself. Perhaps then they wouldn’t kill me when they were finished. I told him my name and asked why he was doing this and if he thought I liked it. He looked hopeful for a second. “Do you?” “No,” I said. He was having trouble performing, mashing his flaccid penis against me, fumbling and fingering. This hurt and, oddly, felt horrifically intimate; this much contact was worse than the first rape, which was at least over more quickly. 

The first man became impatient, slapped his companion on the head and said it was time to go. The other man finally gave up and climbed off of me. I lay half-naked in the dirt for a few moments, and then pulled up my jeans, trapping dirt and leaves in my underwear. “Gioielleria,” the first man demanded. I held out my hands and they pulled two silver flea-market rings from my fingers and unbuckled my watch, the basic kind you used to buy in the drugstore for $40 or so. I gave them my silver globe-shaped earrings. I had about 80,000 liras in my wallet, which they took. “That’s for my rent,” I protested bitterly. “We’ll give you back half,” one of them said, pressing the money into my hand. “If you tell anyone, we’ll come back and kill you.”

And then they were gone. I sat in the clanging silence for a few minutes in a state of shock and confusion. My head felt as if it might split open and my face was stinging in the cold air. I couldn’t figure out what to do next. At last, I got unsteadily to my feet and felt the first man’s deposit fall into my underwear, producing a swell of disgust within me. I wanted to get away from my body, from this soiled receptacle, from any kind of feeling. A siren sounded in the distance and I wondered where the police had been when I needed them. 

I lurched home like a wounded wild animal, skulking down side roads and hiding behind dumpsters when cars went by. I caught a glimpse of myself in a car window; I looked crazy. My hair was tangled with twigs and leaves. My face looked battered, but I couldn’t tell how badly. I felt crazy, like a hole had been torn in the reality I’d always relied upon—that place where the earth circles the sun, water runs downhill, and strangers don’t grab you and start driving their fists into your face. If that could happen, what else should I watch out for? 

And what about their threat to kill me? Was that real? I had no way to assess the situation. I just needed to get to safety—back to my apartment where I could examine my wounds and try to understand what had just happened.

IV. The Aftermath

That’s how I was raped, aged 23, while I was living in Florence, Italy. The reason I am telling my story now, after all these years, is because I believe I can offer a better response to rape—both prevention and recovery—than what has been offered to women like Celeste Marcus and me for so many years. Above all, I believe that the best course of action is to respond as one would to any other crime. But everything I had learned from feminist rape literature meant that I almost didn’t do so.

We had no landline in my apartment, so when I finally reached my neighborhood, I called Lo Scorpione from a payphone and told Enzo what had happened. He shouted for me to get back to my apartment and lock the door and he’d be there immediately. Back in my apartment at last, I went into the bathroom to turn on the water heater and was confronted by an alien face in the mirror—my pupils stared out of a smashed landscape of red welts and scrapes; my skin was stretched tightly over my swollen nose and lips; dirt and blood coated my teeth. 

I took a shower. I knew that this would wash away evidence that might otherwise be collected in a rape kit, but I felt so destroyed that I didn’t know what else to do. I believed I had no hope for justice anyway. I knew all about the history of police reports and rape trials. It seemed impossible that my assailants would be apprehended, and even if they were, I was educated enough to know that the courts favored men, that my sexual history would be put on trial, and that a rape case would almost certainly not result in a conviction—not in the US, and certainly not here in Italy.

But Enzo was unfamiliar with the feminist literature on rape and he disagreed. He burst into my apartment, breathless from sprinting the two miles from Lo Scorpione, ferociously cursed the Madonna when he saw me, and then crouched next to me to clean my face, uttering a continuous stream of oaths under his breath as he swabbed painfully at my cuts and scrapes with a hot washcloth. At last, he sat back on his heels and said, “Chiamiamo la polizia.” I tried to explain the patriarchy to him but he refused to listen. We actually argued about it. But I was exhausted and in pain and scared and eventually I gave in. By then, it was well after two in the morning and we would have to return to the phone booth on the corner to call the police.

We got as far as the curb on Viale Gianotti outside my apartment when I was blessed by a stroke of astonishing good fortune. As we stepped onto the street, we saw a police car approaching with its lights and siren on. Enzo stepped into the road and flagged it down. When I told the three officers inside what had happened to me, they immediately invited us into the car. It turned out that two men matching the description I gave had just crashed a stolen car, and the officers had been on their way to the scene.

The day after my assault, La Repubblica’s Florentine section published a breathless report on the rape (“Raped in the Park!”), which included details of the accident. In the early hours of January 26, a patrol car had noticed a Fiat Tipo driving erratically and gave chase. The pursuit ended at a row of parked cars when the Fiat collided with a Jeep. One of the suspects was found slumped in his seat unconscious and the other was apprehended nearby after police followed the trail of blood he had left in his wake. I would later learn that a passerby had also heard my screams in the park and telephoned the police from a trattoria to report a possible rape. My statement now provided a connection between the two.

The police drove me to Santa Maria Annunziata hospital. Here, many of the dark predictions made by the rape literature came true. There were no rape kits. Or female doctors, apparently. Or private rooms available. In the central atrium of the ER, I was given a perfunctory examination by a team of male doctors without a privacy screen. Two of them helped me undress—one unlaced and removed my boots, while another took my jeans, and folded them into a tidy pile as I stripped down to my underwear, revealing slashes and gouges on my thighs. (It was agreed I could keep my shirt on, after I lifted it and showed that I had no cuts on my torso or chest.) Four other young men (junior doctors, I assumed) stood and listened intently as the head doctor elicited my story and took notes.

Map showing (top to bottom) the scene of the traffic accident, the scene of the assault, the author's apartment, and the Santa Maria Annunziata hospital.

I was getting dressed when Enzo, who’d wandered off to investigate some commotion, ran back and breathlessly announced that my rapists had been brought into the hospital. “It’s OK,” he eagerly reported when I recoiled, “they’re more dead than alive.” When I asked how he knew it was them, he produced the jewelry, watch, and cash that the police had recovered. A few minutes later, as I was lacing up my boots, they were wheeled past me on gurneys. (La Repubblica would report that I identified them to police in the hospital, but I have no memory of this.) 

The hospital was having trouble locating a gynecologist willing to come in and perform a pelvic exam in the middle of the night, so we waited. By the time they announced that they’d found someone, my ability to cooperate was exhausted. “I’m not doing that,” I explained apologetically. The nurses crowded around me and snapped that I would wreck the investigation. I felt like a stubborn child but I couldn’t bear to undress and open my legs again. Finally, Enzo looked into my eyes and said he would go with me. “I’ll hold your hand the whole time,” he promised. 

We were taken to another floor where a scowling, disheveled man with a greasy comb-over performed the exam, and that really did feel like a fresh violation. In fact, the entire ER process was invasive and unpleasant. A competent and kind female doctor and a private room would have been better, but there was no getting around the nature of the situation. Nevertheless, evidence was gathered and the visit was logged. Survival can be a dirty business. 

We spent about two hours in the hospital and another hour or so filing a report at the police station. By the time Enzo and I finally arrived back at my apartment, it was almost 7:00 a.m. Enzo fell asleep almost immediately, but I was completely wired. His bare legs against mine repulsed me so I got up and put on a pair of heavy sweatpants. Back in bed, I trembled violently as I revisited the events of the last six hours. When I shut my eyes I saw shouting faces, fists, stars, and the men peering down at me as they raped me, their figures shrouded by the night sky over the Arno River. 

Most terrifying of all, I contemplated a bleak future. It seemed obvious that my life was over. The only raped women I could think of—in film, TV, or literature—were tragic and pathetic figures. Was I destined to become a permanent emotional invalid, traumatized by my assault and haunted by my attackers? Everything meaningful I’d ever hoped for in life—career, adventure, love, children—appeared to have been wiped out.

V. Recovery

The first months after the attack were difficult. It was hard to get through a single day without collapsing into fits of crying or feeling paralyzed by malaise and anxiety. I experienced nauseous panic when someone got too close to my face or when large men approached me too quickly. Worst of all, I felt thoroughly isolated from the rugged and sophisticated world I’d once so comfortably inhabited. I realized getting back to normal would require navigating a balance: on the one hand, protecting myself as carefully as if I were a child who’d been hurt—on the other, reclaiming my adult self. It was complicated.

Less than a week after my assault, I found myself watching Sergio Leone’s gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America with a group of friends. It was broadcast on TV and we were all looking forward to a quiet movie night during this dark and grueling time. None of us knew that the film included a scene in which Robert De Niro’s character violently rapes Elizabeth McGovern’s character in the back of a car. My reaction to this scene was visceral. I was overwhelmed by how much I identified with the raped woman and mortified by the thought that my friends might be thinking of me in this degraded, humiliated position. We all watched the scene woodenly, none of us finding the courage to change the channel. It was a deeply unfortunate moment at a time when I was still in pain and grieving and needed protection until I could recover some sense of myself. But as time went by, my reaction to chance encounters with difficult material evolved. 

Weeks after the rape, while doing some casual work at the art school I’d attended a few years earlier, I came across an issue of Newsweek from January. The cover story was about the campaigns of mass rape then being committed by Serb militias in Bosnia. Today, a system of content warnings and safe spaces has been constructed to protect victims of sexual violence from material like this lest they find themselves retraumatized. But as I read through the report, my reaction was quite different. The report was graphic and upsetting, but I was transfixed:

In the last few months, a torrent of wrenching first-person testimonies from refugees has emerged, suggesting widespread sexual abuse by Serb forces. They tell of repeated rapes of girls as young as 6 and 7; violations by neighbors and strangers alike; gang rapes so brutal their victims die; rape camps where Serbs routinely abused and murdered Muslim and Croat women; rapes of young girls performed in front of fathers, mothers, siblings and children; rapes committed explicitly to impregnate Muslim women and hold them captive until they give birth to wanted Serbian babies.

I read that report with my heart pounding, wracked with horror for what Bosnian women and girls were suffering. The story of a 12-year old girl who had been raped repeatedly was especially harrowing. My experience, terrible as it had been, paled in comparison. I began thinking about my assault in relative terms and became aware of how fortunate I was. I created a scale of trauma and atrocity in my mind, and I concluded that, within this wider context, my brief and isolated assault was at the lower end.

Rather than sending me deeper into a state of pain, the horrors of Bosnia gave me the beginnings of a rational perspective. I was a sexually mature adult when the rape occurred, not a child or teen; I wasn’t permanently maimed or murdered; and most importantly, my family and friends stood by me. In many parts of the world, then and now, rape victims are shunned and reviled, made to marry their rapists, or even murdered by their closest relatives. I received only kindness from those closest to me. I wrote to most of my friends to tell them what happened and they all wrote back. Some of their friends (who I didn’t know) also wrote to me, and in one case, the mother of a friend of a friend wrote to me. Everyone I knew—both Europeans and Americans—rallied around. And Enzo never responded to what had happened to me with anything other than compassion and support.

I came to realize that a full recovery would mean living in the world of adult affairs, interacting with literature, film, world affairs, political discussion, even inappropriate jokes. I resolved to do whatever it would take to keep from losing my claim on these and other parts of adult life that were so meaningful to me (including the classical art world, which suddenly seemed to be saturated with depictions of rape). As I charted my recovery, this became an essential goal. But perhaps the biggest influence on this process was yet to come.

My parents—long since divorced—visited me in turn. Shaken by the news of my ordeal, they each brought a stack of books for me to read as I convalesced. My father, touchingly, brought me Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s manifesto of female self-empowerment Women Who Run With the Wolves, published the previous year. He also brought me Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia, which my grandmother had selected, probably thinking it looked like something her feminist granddaughter would appreciate. I had never heard of Paglia before, but I devoured her book. Ostensibly a work of cultural criticism, Paglia fills her analysis of art and literary texts with profound and provocative reflections on human nature, desire, masculinity and femininity, sex and violence.

It was a bracing and painful read just weeks after being raped, and I frequently had to put it down. Paglia self-identifies as a feminist, but much of her book seemed to be an attack on conventional feminist ideas, particularly the notion that the oppression of women is a consequence of misogynistic social conditioning. The years I’d spent absorbing feminist scholarship had taught me that rape occurs because men have been socialized by our patriarchal culture to consider their toxic actions permissible or even laudable. But Paglia argues that it is human civilization and not the untamed natural world that offers salvation:

Rape is a mode of natural aggression that can be controlled only by the social contract. Modern feminism’s most naive formulation is its assertion that rape is a crime of violence but not of sex, that it is merely power masquerading as sex. But sex is power, and all power is inherently aggressive. Rape is male power fighting female power. It is no more to be excused than is murder or any other assault on another’s civil rights. Society is women’s protection against rape, not, as some feminists absurdly maintain, the cause of rape. Rape is the sexual expression of the will-to-power, which nature plants in all of us and which civilization rose to contain. Therefore the rapist is the man with too little socialization rather than too much.

These felt like dangerous ideas, and they were upsetting at first. I even wrote witheringly about Paglia in my journal. But I found her arguments impossible to dismiss and I kept returning to them. Her vision of the scope and magnitude of the eternal conflicts between civilization and the natural world made sense to me and were both awe-inspiring and comforting. I preferred to know what storms and pitfalls I might encounter so I could properly prepare. I found myself reconsidering much of what I had understood about the world from my feminist viewpoint. For example, the denial of biological differences between men and women, foundational to my understanding of human nature, now seemed flimsy and unrealistic, and the conclusions that followed from that denial began to seem foolish.

In a 1991 essay for Newsday titled “Rape: A Bigger Danger Than Feminists Know,” Paglia argued that women must take an active role in protecting themselves and the “red flame” of their sexuality, and went so far as to say that, having “made a mistake,” women must “accept the consequences and, through self-criticism, resolve never to make that mistake again.” The article caused a storm of controversy, and elicited a stern rebuke from Susan Jacoby in the New York Times. Jacoby described Paglia as an “antifeminist” and accused her of victim blaming. In a letter to the Times, Paglia responded:

When I entered college in 1964, women were locked in the dorm at 11 p.m. My generation rebelled against and shattered these paternalistic rules. But with freedom comes risk and responsibility. We accepted the risk in order to explore and learn about life. My kind of feminism stresses independence and personal responsibility for women.

Blaming the victim makes perfect sense if the victim has behaved stupidly. I doubt that Susan Jacoby would leave her purse on the street or sleep with her doors wide open at night. Theft, rape, and murder are facts of life in large societies, except in police states.

Feminism has got to wake up and look at life as it is. Sex is a dark and turbulent power that may not be controllable by pat verbal formulas and chirpy hopes.

I read Paglia’s views on rape in the weeks and months following my assault, and I ultimately came to agree with her. I accepted no blame for the rape itself—that lay entirely with my attackers. But by walking home alone that night, there was no question that I had exposed myself to unnecessary danger—rapists are predatory opportunists and an unaccompanied woman at night is easy prey. I wasn’t carrying a key chain alarm or pepper spray; I didn’t listen to my instincts as I approached the man blocking my path; and had I waited for Enzo to finish work or accepted the offer of a ride home from my friends, I would have avoided my ordeal entirely. 

But modern rape discourse elides these self-evident truths and even considers them an affront. During a 2019 debate with feminist writer Roxane Gay, American Enterprise Institute scholar Christina Hoff Sommers was jeered and booed when she mentioned a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that showed significant reductions in rape and assault when college freshman girls were taught how to avoid danger. “All of these problems,” Gay drily remarked, “could be solved by men learning to not rape.” And the room erupted into wild applause.

VI. Catharsis

“Rape,” Celeste Marcus writes in Liberties, “is one of the most under-reported crimes in the United States.” Presumably, she thinks this is a bad thing. And yet, at every turn, her essay seems to discourage reporting sexual assault to the authorities. She is dismayed that “Why didn’t you go to the police?” is “often the first question people ask when told that you were raped.” People who ask this question don’t seem to understand the “often insurmountable obstacles” that rape victims face when they try to pursue justice. The police are unsympathetic and untrustworthy, she continues. Reports of rape are undercounted, mishandled, and downgraded. Rape kits are left unprocessed. “And for those whose cases are investigated and the evidence is processed and a trial can begin, the best-case scenario also involves significant pain.”

Asked by someone on Twitter why she had not reported her rape, Marcus replied

I need four hands to count the number of women I know who have been raped. TWO went to the police. Their rape kits are sitting in labs unchecked along with thousands of others in the US. They will likely expire before any tests are run.

We don’t go to the police because when we do our most private parts are swabbed, we are interrogated, we spend MONTHS answering the same questions, and nothing happens. I do not know a single woman whose rapist was punished by the police. I don’t know anyone who does. Do you?

You want me to have gone to the police bc YOU don’t have the data to decide whether or not to believe me.

If I had been punched in the face would I owe it to my assailant not to tell anyone if I wasn’t willing to go to the police?

But her indignation only serves to obscure the obvious: If we don’t treat our assaults as real crimes and report them to the police, our chances of a conviction are reduced to zero. If we don’t request a medical examination, we will have no forensic evidence with which to pursue a criminal investigation. And in the absence of forensic or judicial standards, the only evidence of rape becomes our eternal suffering, which effectively impedes our recovery. Recovery from rape is possible, especially with support; but perversely, the modern feminist response leaves us with only the longevity and depth of our personal ruin as the best evidence of the crime committed against us.

And, of course, if crimes are not reported, the perpetrators will remain unpunished and at liberty to reoffend. My attackers, it turned out, were recidivists. Mohamed Gimouni, 24, and Dolmi Abd Majid, 22, were undocumented migrants from Morocco who had arrived in Italy towards the end of the first wave of North African immigration that began in the mid-1980s. Three nights before they raped me, they had assaulted and attempted to rape a young Italian woman, whom I will call Claudia. She took days to decide to go to the police, but when she did, she discovered that her attackers had already been arrested in connection with my rape, and that a case was now being built against them. Her report and mine were mutually corroborative. Had neither of us filed a report, these men might never have been charged and would almost certainly have continued to victimize other women.

I met Claudia by chance when I traveled to the prison in Scandicci, outside Florence, on March 19 to perform a formal identification of my assailants. She was there to identify the same men, and in the following weeks, she found a lawyer named Silvia Morales to represent us. Morales was a fierce and intimidating Italian feminist with short dark hair and a scar down the side of her face. She spoke in such rapid-fire torrents of words that I had great difficulty understanding her—partly because of the Italian, but also because, even in English, I was unfamiliar with legal terms and procedures.

At our first meeting with Morales, we learned that a request for a change in procedure had been filed by the defendants’ lawyers and accepted by the court. There would now be one judge instead of three, she explained, a closed courtroom with no press or public, no witness testimonies, and consequently, a lighter sentence was likely. Morales knew the judge and believed she was unlikely to convict. Running through the transcripts and documents in our file, she identified one problem after another, including various lapses in the gathering of evidence, inconsistencies, and an unsatisfactory police report. “This will be too easy to lose,” she told us.

But we did not lose. The recovery of my stolen jewelry and our identification of the suspects was enough. On May 25, Gimouni and Majid were each handed an eight-year jail sentence by the Italian court. Walking out of the courtroom arm in arm with Claudia and shouting “Otto anni!” to our waiting friends was a moment of sublime catharsis. But by that point, I was already five months into my life after rape. I had already decided that I was going to survive this, and I had resolved to do so regardless of the trial’s outcome.

Today, I am dismayed by my initial reluctance to report my rape and grateful that I was with someone who cared enough about my interests to talk me into doing so. The thought that I almost chose to treat the assault as something less than a serious crime worthy of judicial oversight is chilling to me. Holding my assailants to account was a critical element in my recovery. Even if they had been acquitted despite my best efforts, the fact that I had pursued them to the furthest extent possible using the most effective tools available was important to me. So, too, I came to realize, was the fight that I had put up during the assault itself. “[O]ne of the most important functions of physical resistance,” wrote Bart and O’Brien, “is to keep women from feeling depressed even if they have been raped.” 

I fought my attackers for as long as I could and I bellowed for help. It didn’t prevent the rape and I paid the price of resistance with vicious retaliation. I couldn’t turn my head for days. I had scars for years, including a pink line under my eye that turned red whenever I drank and a puckered gouge on my thigh. I didn’t show them off, but I was privately proud of those scars. I had not allowed myself to become a willing accomplice in my own subjugation—I had made the assault as difficult as I could for my assailants, and my cries had helped raise the alarm.

One of the most baffling parts of modern feminist discourse, which I discovered in the years after my rape, is that feeling proud of my resistance is controversial. So too is the idea that through hard work and resilience, a complete recovery from trauma is possible. The default mode—passive response followed by everlasting emotional damage and PTSD—is so resolute that it verges on canon.

“There are studies which show that victims often go into shock and so are unable to scream,” writes Celeste Marcus. “Why anyone needs a report to tell them that boggles the mind.” I do not know how common that response is, and I do not in any way blame women who find they are unable to fight back, for whatever reason. What bothers me is a feminist discourse that refuses to acknowledge and prioritize the most effective means of rape avoidance—and the best methods for prosecution and recovery—and instead promotes passivity and hopelessness. I find it disturbing that in an era of extreme sexual freedom, women are advised to rest the outcome of a sexual encounter entirely on the chance that a partner will listen for enthusiastic consent, refusing on principle to keep their own gates by any other means.

I reject this entire approach as unserious. I reject the refusal to acknowledge that women are capable of making reckless decisions and that noticing such recklessness somehow diminishes the moral responsibility of her attacker. I reject the idea that the definition of rape lies in the eye of the beholder—violent rape and reluctant acquiescence in the face of persistence or pressure are obviously vastly different. I reject a system of mob justice that relies upon the power of rage, public shame and stigma, the loyalties of a large social-media following, and the intimidation of employers to dispense retribution. And I reject the idea that advising women to be active advocates for their safety and well-being is restrictive.

For those dissatisfied with the advice offered by modern rape and trauma discourse, I offer the following alternative: Accept the awesome responsibility for your own personal security. Trust your instincts when they warn you of danger. If you are unlucky enough to be attacked anyway, fight like hell with everything you’ve got. If you are raped, go directly to the hospital for an examination and then file a police report. Pursue prosecution. Whether you resisted or not, know that it is never too late to fight to regain your whole self. And as you nurse your way through your recovery, bear in mind that you can take loving care of your wounded self at the same time as you seek to understand your experience with a rational, informed perspective.

Above all, remember that no matter your circumstances, a life of trauma and unhappiness does not have to be your destiny. And when you are ready, return to the life you intended to lead. I’ll meet you there. 

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